The U.S. Navy played a vital role in the Civil War, and will be commemorating its part in the war during the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial. Early in the conflict, the Navy set up a blockade around the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts to cut off the Confederacy’s trade with the outside world.
With 3,550 miles of coastline, the task was difficult, and in 1861 the U.S. Fleet numbered in the dozens and not all were seaworthy. Blockade running by Confederate ships brought in supplies and war material from Europe. As the war continued, the federal fleet grew in both size and effectiveness, so that by the end of the war in 1865, the fleet had grown to well over 600 ships of all types. Confederate ports were cut off as the blockade gained effectiveness, and with the capture of Fort Fisher at Wilmington, North Carolina in January 1865, all southern ports were under Federal control.
Naval forces also acted in cooperation with the army in several coastal actions. Not all were successful; Union forces were decisively beaten in the September 1863 Battle of Sabine Pass in Texas. But many others were successful, including several actions along the Carolina coasts.
The Civil War also marked the beginning of the transition between wooden ships and iron and steel vessels. The battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia on March 9th, 1862 btween the Federal U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S Virgina ( better known under its former name Merrimack) marked the first battle ever between two iron warships.
The Navy played an important role in inland operations as well, especially in the western theatre of operations. Control of the major rivers — the Mississippi, Tennessee, Cumberland, Arkansas, and Red –was vital. For this role, new light draft ironclad river gunboats were developed that could operate in both the deep river channels and shallower tributaries. River gunboats provided essential firepower for a long list of battles and campaigns, including Fort Donaldson and Shiloh in Tennessee; Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Port Hudson, Louisiana.